Veterans Get Job Support After Their Years of Service
Coming home after time spent in combat zones is undoubtedly a challenging process. After spending years with the military, soldiers have to make personal and professional adjustments, and each facet of the process presents a unique situation.
It’s enough work to transition back into civilian life after spending time in a war zone or overseas, without the added pressure of looking for sustainable employment.
But for those veterans looking to break into politics and policy, the challenges can be even greater. While those familiar with the ways of Washington know that networking and the ability to sell oneself are essential to landing Hill jobs and moving up the Congressional staffer ladder, service members are less likely to be keyed into the scene.
Looking for work in a particularly unfriendly economy is difficult, but an increasing number of service members are coming home with psychological scars, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to physical wounds. Patricia Orsini, director of the Wounded Warrior Program under the House’s Chief Administrative Officer, said veterans often have to balance having a job with attending medical appointments, which can be a difficult task.
But efforts are being made by Orsini and other groups on the Hill, particularly by veterans who have already made the jump from the military to Washington, to help those service members who want to be here but are struggling to figure out how.
One Man’s Story
Javier Martinez is a professional staff member for the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity and the chairman of the Congressional Military Service Members and Veterans Association. He’s been working in Washington for several years now, but said he found the process of getting from his hometown in Arizona to the halls of Congress to be a somewhat daunting task.
Martinez enlisted with the Army after graduating from high school in order to get money for college. After four years of active duty, he spent a year and half with the Army Reserve while a student at the University of Arizona before deciding to pursue his lifelong goal of working on the Hill. However, without the proper guidance, Martinez struggled to land that first position.
“I found it a little bit frustrating in the application process,— he admitted. Martinez had no real understanding of what different staff positions entailed, such as what a staff assistant or legislative director does.
He decided to go right to the source, purchasing a one-way ticket to Washington and crashing on a friend’s couch while he networked and sought guidance on how to reach his goal. And he quickly learned the highly prized art of spinning his experience to his — and his prospective employer’s — advantage. Soon after, he landed a position as staff assistant and junior legislative assistant to Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas).
“The way that I tried to connect to that Congressman’s office was that I speak Spanish, I understand the issues that are important to the Southwest,— he said. Because Reyes was involved with the Armed Services Committee and chaired the Intelligence Committee, Martinez also played up his military expertise. “They were able to see, Oh, he relates more to our community than, say, someone from Austin, Texas, who doesn’t have that experience.—
While Martinez’s self-motivation is admirable, he began working with the CMSMVA to make the process a bit more transparent to those who are in the position he was in when he first started.
“Unfortunately, unemployment rates are high among vets,— he said. “There are a lot looking for employment, but they don’t know exactly what the roles and requirements are.—
The bipartisan CMSMVA has been mostly dormant for the past several months as some executive board members have left the Hill to pursue other professional or educational opportunities, Martinez said. But the group is gearing up for active outreach again under their new sponsor, Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.).
Vets on Staff
A former service member himself, Walz spent 24 years with the National Guard. He said he is committed to promoting job opportunities to veterans and ensuring that they have the amount of flexibility and understanding they need from their employers. Walz himself has two veterans on staff and said the attributes such staffers bring to any office are invaluable.
“They’ve already sworn a commitment to the Constitution, and they have that sense of wanting to give something,— Walz said. “They bring that understanding of how to work with a team.—
Like Martinez, Walz said he would like to see the CMSMVA be more proactive in their outreach efforts and said he wants to promote the importance of hiring veterans and setting up a productive and flexible work environment for them. This is especially crucial in Congressional offices.
“We need to make sure we’re setting a standard here. You’re not asking anything special; it’s the right thing to do,— he said.
Orsini, of the Wounded Warrior Program, also emphasized the benefits of having veterans working with Congressional staff.
“They bring a kind of reality to the environment and a reminder of what’s really going on over there,— she said. “Their work ethic and military experience is invaluable, and their being used to structure and accountability.—
The problem, she said, is that they don’t always get the proper job interview training and résumé guidance. Even after attending military-sponsored transition classes when they leave the service, Orsini said she sees many applicants who simply do not know how best to market themselves. They also often don’t know what to expect from a civilian job after having been deployed. When she sees an application that she knows will not cut it on the Hill, she will usually send it back with suggestions for improvement.
Although Orsini and others with the program do not have openings for every person who submits a résumé, she has been maintaining a database of résumés she can mine when jobs do come up.
Orsini said the group has also been trying to hire veterans as staffers under the CAO’s umbrella. When hired, the service members become CAO employees detailed to Congressional offices. This allows her to track the leave they accrue and make sure they all have the same standards for working hours and medical leave.
“We are hiring a population that we know before they walk in the door probably has these problems,— she said. “We’re revisiting policies that exist— to try to accommodate those who do land jobs there.
While getting that initial hire is important, Martinez said he would also like to see the CMSMVA help its members focus on the future as well. Going forward, he said he hopes to work on professional development so they can build on their military experience and hone other skills that will make them more attractive candidates for future positions. This process will help them move from soldiers to Congressional employees, and then to well-rounded staffers.